Graham Ruthven: Montreal and Toronto will face off in an all-Canadian tie for the right to face either Seattle or Colorado in the MLS Cup final
Seattle can be very Seattle. Renowned for being one of Americas most progressive cities, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2012, where the minimum wage is higher than anywhere else in the US and where smoking marijuana is permitted, there is a certain spirit to the place that distinguishes it from anywhere else. That extends to sport.
Its NFL team the Seahawks practice yoga and eat free-range chicken organically raised specifically for the players. Its soccer team, partially co-owned by a film director and a comedian, commands a bigger following than any other in the United States. Its different here, have you noticed? Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll once said, but its the Sounders who best reflect their surroundings.
Long considered the biggest club in Major League Soccer, the Seattle Sounders have harnessed a fervor for soccer in a way other organizations can only dream of. For many, they are the precedent. If Seattle can support a team that draws average home crowds of over 40,000 then why cant your city?
Of course, there are a number of socio-economic factors that contribute to the off-the-field success of the Sounders, but there is no doubting the scale of the club. Everything from their attendances, to so-called March to the Match tradition which sees thousands of fans walk through the city from Pioneer Square to CenturyLink Field for every home game, to their storied history which stretches back to the sepia-tinged days of the NASL, gives them a certain aura. They are MLSs biggest club, although never its best. That could change this season, though.
For the third time in five years the Seattle Sounders have made it to the Western Conference final. They will host the first leg against the Colorado Rapids next week, but its the prospect of a first ever MLS Cup appearance that dangles a juicy rave green carrot in front of everyone associated with the club. The national television cameras will be present to capture what is expected to be close to a sell-out crowd and the kind of occasion yearned for in Seattle for a very long time. MLSs big club are finally in the big time.
Whats more, the Sounders chances of going even further look good. Theres even a potential scenario where by the MLS Cup final could be played at CenturyLink Field (if Seattle beat Colorado and the Montreal Impact beat Toronto FC). That would be a defining moment for a club big enough establish themselves as North Americas predominant soccer team, just as the LA Galaxy did not so long ago.
It might not be a comparison that their supporters especially appreciate, but the Sounders are this seasons Portland Timbers. They looked doomed not so long ago, with the firing of club stalwart Sigi Schmid as manager as well as the loss of Clint Dempsey to a heart problem inflicting a deep sense of malaise. Their play-off hopes were written off as talk started to turn towards next season. The overhaul was already in planning. But then they just started winning, and couldnt stop.
Schmids departure proved a watershed in a way that nobody could have predicted. The 1-1 home draw against LA Galaxy recorded just a few days after the veteran head coachs exit marked a shift in mentality at the club. The streak started the following match, with a 3-1 away win over Orlando City sparking a run that saw them claim 10 wins from their next 16 fixtures right up until the close of the regular season.
That momentum has carried over into the play-offs, with the 3-0 first leg win over FC Dallas in the conference semi-finals the ultimate showcase of how under Brian Schmetzer the Seattle Sounders have become a whirlwind outfit capable of blowing anyone away. In theory they shouldnt have much going for them, yet all that is countered by the momentum they have gathered over the past few months.
While such a view might have its root in an ignorance of the American game, the Sounders are seen as an authentic club in a way few are stateside. MLS teams are often derided for a lack of history. Seattle have no problem in pointing to that. Some accuse North American fanbases of being artificial, yet no such derision can be aimed at the Sounders. Their support and stature is organic. If European soccer still looks down its nose at the US game, then it surely sees some of itself in the Pacific Northwest.
Soccer boasts a certain image in Seattle that is lacks in other MLS cities. In Foxborough for instance, it is still viewed as a minority sport, with football very much the game of the majority. It doesnt help that the New England Revolution play their home games in an NFL stadium. That doesnt hold back the Sounders, though. In fact, playing home games in an NFL stadium sustains them as the biggest soccer club in North American soccer.
Big clubs dont always enjoy big success. Those with most behind them naturally stand a better chance of reaching the top, but the correlation isnt always a direct one. The Seattle Sounders, however, are on the brink of joining the dots. The end result might be a picture of the MLS Cup.
Montreal Impact v Toronto FC
This wasnt supposed to happen. The two New York clubs vied for top spot in the East all season long, but both the Red Bulls and NYC FC were blown out the water by their Canadian counterparts in the conference semi-finals (NYC FC more so than the Red Bulls). Now we have the most significant 401 derby in history.
Both Montreal and Toronto FC are franchises burdened by hefty expectations, making this a compelling clash. Greg Vanneys side made a statement by thumping NYC FC 7-0 on aggregate, with Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore in free-scoring form. In that groove TFC will be difficult to stop.
Seattle Sounders v Colorado Rapids
This match will tell us a lot about the Seattle Sounders true credentials as MLS Cup challengers. They have momentum behind them, and have done for quite some time now, but there are still fundamental flaws to their lineup. And what happens when Jordan Morris finally falters under the pressure completely unreasonable to pile on a rookie?
The Rapids are one of the toughest teams to beat in MLS, with Pablo Mastroenis side founded on their quality as a defensive unit. But against the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference semi-finals they demonstrated how they have enough about them to grind out a win on the biggest occasion, knocking out the five-time MLS Cup winners in a penalty shootout. Now they must grind out another result with the pressure on.